Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Get Your Creak On
Back in December, a small study by researchers at Long Island University got a lot of news play. Maybe you heard about it. It was about the supposed recent increase in young American women's use of vocal fry — the lowest vocal register, the one with a creaky quality to it. (Other registers include modal, for normal speaking; falsetto; and a register called whistle, which is not the same thing as actual whistling.) The story broke in ScienceNow, and for the next two weeks came up again and again in newspapers, in TV news segments, and online.
Here and there, other linguists disputed the study's claims. On Language Log, Mark Liberman pointed out that vocal fry is not new, noting that even the LIU linguists cited papers on it from the 1960s. Posts on other linguistics blogs included samples of well-known males engaging in vocal fry, including Ira Glass and Kurt Cobain. (In fact, the post with Cobain was published way back in April, months before vocal fry hit the big time.) Josef Fruehwald, who wrote the post featuring Ira Glass, also noted that since the only participants in the study were women in the first place, you can't conclude that it's a female phenomenon. Even in a segment about the LIU study on the Today show (embedded in Fruehwald's post), linguist Janet Pierrehumbert denied that vocal fry was a new phenomenon, and put down a speculation (offered without evidence in the LIU study) that pop stars might be responsible for its popularity. But as Fruehwald wrote, "The whole premise of the piece is wrong, and she says so, and they power right along like it's irrelevant." News outlets were happy to run the story without asking any tough questions.
By about the fifth time I encountered the vocal fry story, I'd been subjected to the term vocal fry enough that I got to wondering why it was called vocal fry. The original term I'd heard for it was actually glottal fry. It was back in sixth grade, and my friend Greg and I were trying to produce the vocal effects described in a book called MouthSounds,written by a guy named Frederick R. Newman, best known these days as the provider the (oral) sound effects on A Prairie Home Companion. The book was updated in 2004 (complete with a CD to illustrate the sounds, instead of the floppy plastic record Greg and I played), and in it, Newman writes that glottal fry is useful for sounds effects such as creaking castle doors, unearthly computer voices, or "slowed way down to a series of sparse clicks, ... a Geiger counter or cosmic ray detector." As for its origin:
Scientists in the field of vocal production ... invented the term "glottal fry" years ago to describe a particular series of clicking sounds created in the glottis — the opening between the vocal folds in the upper larynx. Although the Glottal Fry does not sound exactly like frying an egg over easy, it's close enough that we can forgive the burst of poetic license.
This etymology is the commonly accepted one: Vocal or glottal fry sounds like the crackling and popping of something frying. It's part of the definition for vocal fry given in the glossary for the online Voice Academy (dedicated to the vocal health of U.S. teachers). That definition is the one that one commenter quoted when the question came up on StackExchange on Dec. 31.
The explanation sounds reasonable, but so do a lot of etymologies that are completely bogus. To date, vocal fry and glottal fry do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the entry for just fry contains only the common definition of the cooking process, plus a few other even less relevant meanings. Even so, this etymology turns out to be the real deal. The term glottal fry was first published in 1942, in a two-page article by Henry M. Moser in the Journal of Speech Disorders. In it, he describes the case of a young man who had been so embarrassed when his voice began to change during puberty that he developed the habit of speaking at a pitch high enough to avoid the cracking. He never quit, and years later, he still had an unusually high-pitched, "effeminate" voice. Moser was able to guide the man to a normal voice by means of
the ‘glottal fry' attack. It is a method I have used with considerable success and one which I do not believe is well known. It is very easy to demonstrate but extremely difficult to describe. You may recognize it as the sound produced by many youngsters in imitating a motorboat but to me it more nearly resembles the sound of vigorously popping corn.
So there you have it. It really is called a fry because it reminded someone of something frying in hot oil. But when did glottal fry become vocal fry?
Of course, some people still do call it glottal fry, such as Fred Newman. Vocal fry seems to have joined glottal fryabout a decade later. The earliest citation I've found is in the Handbook of Speech Pathology and Audiology, by Lee Edward Travis, which doesn't offer any explanation. Later sources credit Moser with the original description of vocal fry, ignoring the fact that he called it glottal fry. One source that does acknowledge the difference in terminology is Voice and Articulation,published in 1958, by Charles van Riper. Though he prefers vocal fry, van Riper mentions that Moser calls it glottal fry, and that the author of a book on singing calls it "glottal scrape or rattle." But it sheds no further light on the origin of vocal fry.
Meanwhile, professionals outside the fields of music or speech pathology have also been talking about glottal/vocal fry for years, but they've been using (and continue to use) yet another term. Linguists call it creaky voice, and according to the Google Ngram viewer, it turns up more than glottal fry and vocal fry combined, although some hits are undoubtedly examples of creaky voice used without any specialized meaning. You can see in the graph that creaky voice goes back to the 1800s, but the hits from that era are mostly from works of fiction, not linguistic studies. The first example I've found with creaky voice in its technical sense is from 1937, in The Tongues of Men by John Rupert Firth.
The fry/creak vocabulary distinction is a surprising social marker, indicating whether one's relationship with phonetics falls more into the realm of pure or applied linguistics. But in a gesture toward increasing communication between the two groups, I now propose the term creaky fry.